10 great German films of the 21st century

From Good Bye Lenin! to The Lives of Others: our pick of some of the best movies from Germany so far this century.

Toni Erdmann (2016)

Maren Ade’s Toni Erdmann has been a favourite of audiences and critics alike since it premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 2016, subsequently being shown as the Laugh Gala at the BFI London Film Festival. Sight & Sound critics voted it the best film of 2016, it swept the German and European film awards and was nominated for the Oscar for best foreign language film.

While everyone has called it a comedy, Ade’s film is also a profoundly nuanced character study about a father and his attempts to win back the affections of his estranged daughter. It will make you laugh out loud (promise!), but it may also touch you deeply as it raises existential questions about the pursuit of happiness and, yes, the meaning of life. It’s a powerful movie about the clash between the generation of 1968 and their capitalist children. As its director pointedly remarked in an interview: it’s not a comedy, but a film about humour.

Building on the acclaim for her second feature, Everyone Else (2009), which was sadly never released in the UK, Ade now sits at the forefront of the young generation of daring and eclectic German filmmakers who’ve been making waves since the early 2000s. Given that most modern German films that have reached fame beyond the country’s borders have been directed by men, Ade’s success is especially notable. Other exciting contemporary female directors include Nicolette Krebitz, Anne Zohra Berrached, Sonja Heiss and Maria Schrader, to name a few, though many of their standout films are still unavailable on DVD in Britain.

With Toni Erdmann now available to watch online on BFI Player, here are some of the finest German films to have emerged since the turn of the millennium.

Good Bye Lenin! (2003)

Director: Wolfgang Becker

Good Bye, Lenin! (2003)

This tragicomedy from director Wolfgang Becker became a smash hit earlier this century, both in Germany and in the English-speaking world. It’s the inspired story of a young man (played by Daniel Brühl in his breakthrough role) living in East Berlin whose socialist mother suffers a heart attack and slips into a coma. While she’s in an unconscious state, political events gather speed: the Berlin Wall is knocked down, the East German government is dismantled and capitalism invades from the west. Told to avoid any stress for his mum when she wakes up, Alex decides to conceal the big news. He and his sister pretend that nothing has happened, starting a bizarre effort to keep the GDR alive within the four walls of their apartment – TV news and food included.

While touching on important political and social issues, Becker constructs an elaborate and funny charade around the fall of socialism, brilliantly combining a satire of the communist state with the story of a boy’s love for his mother.

Head-on (2004)

Director: Fatih Akin

Head-On (2004)

Fatih Akin’s breakout film Head-on was the first German movie in 18 years to win the Golden Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival, and its success was an important stepping stone in the rise of German auteur cinema. Born in Germany to Turkish parents, Akin often focuses on topics around ethnic identity and has thus become a spokesperson for second-generation immigrants in Germany.

With Head-on, he made a film that lives up to its title in many ways. Cahit and Sibel have both just attempted suicide when they meet in the psychiatric ward of a hospital in Hamburg and, after discovering that Cahit is of Turkish origin as well, Sibel begs him to join her in a marriage of convenience in order to break free from her strict Muslim family. Faked feelings slowly become real, but their love story is doomed to failure. In this raw, somewhat brutal and very provocative film, Akin presents an emotionally intense and visually explicit experience. Instead of offering solutions, he raises questions about identity and cultural stereotypes.

The Edukators (2004)

Director: Hans Weingartner

The Edukators (2004)

This is a provocative movie about generational conflict, focusing on young people who are fighting against capitalism in a very distinctive way. Jan, Peter and Jule break into rich people’s houses while the owners are gone, carefully rearranging their possessions and leaving behind a note that their days of plenty are numbered. When they get caught in the act, they have no choice but to kidnap the homeowner. The slow falling apart of their idealistic worldview begins. Shooting with a handheld camera, Hans Weingartner, a former activist himself, raises the question of how fear can limit freedom.

By introducing the concept of educating the supposed enemies, Weingartner adds a playful layer to a very political topic. Starring two of Germany’s top stars, Daniel Brühl and Julia JentschThe Edukators was the first German film in 11 years to premiere in competition at the Cannes Film Festival and has become a cult movie for a new political generation.

Requiem (2006)

Director: Hans-Christian Schmid

Requiem (2006)

Films such as Crazy (2000), a coming-of-age film about friendships and falling in love, and Distant Lights (2003), about life at the border between Germany and Poland, have established Hans-Christian Schmid as one of the great German storytellers of recent times. He has a unique talent for combining the symbolic with reality. In Requiem, he focuses on the consequences of religious fanaticism and exorcism.

Michaela (Toni Erdmann lead Sandra Hüller in another standout performance) grew up in a deeply religious family, and when she leaves for university she finds herself torn between two worlds. After a mental breakdown, a priest reinforces her conviction that she is possessed by demons. Hans-Christian Schmid tells Michaela’s gruesome story in a grippingly realistic way. What could have easily been a horror film becomes an intensely moving and disturbing portrait of a woman seeking her path in a world of moral ambiguity. It really gets under your skin.

The Lives of Others (2006)

Director: Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck

The Lives of Others (2006)

To win the Oscar for best foreign film with a debut feature is quite astonishing, but so is Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s GDR-set spy thriller, revolving around a celebrated couple from the theatre world. In his film about morality, love and trust in times of surveillance, von Donnersmarck draws the viewer ever deeper into a spiral of ethical conflicts that is hard, if not impossible, to escape. By following Stasi commissar Wiesler, who submerges himself into the “the life of others”, we witness a gradual transition from loyal regime follower to human being – a transition that challenges our common understanding of good and evil.

Straight out of film school, von Donnersmarck managed to gather an impressive ensemble of talented actors, and the result is an intensely gripping thriller of dramatic and psychological complexity, one that is equally demanding of our hearts and minds.

Pina (2011)

Director: Wim Wenders

Pina (2011)

This film is an homage to the late Pina Bausch, the great German choreographer who changed the nature of live performance with her blend of dance and theatre. When she died unexpectedly just before the filming commenced, Wim Wenders was convinced by her ensemble of the even greater need to continue the project. In the documentary, he combines performances and interviews on and off stage, ushering the viewer on a visually stunning journey. Although the story behind her choreography might not always be obvious, the emotions that lie beneath it are so familiar that we can all relate to them. Originally shot in 3D, Wenders’ film succeeds in creating an intimacy that draws you into a magical mix of dance, music and film.

If you enjoy this film, you might want to see the ensemble’s live performance at Sadler’s Wells in February 2017.

Stopped on Track (2011)

Director: Andreas Dresen

Stopped on Track (2011)

Andreas Dresen is a director who likes to tackle subjects that other filmmakers consider taboo. He did so in his remarkable film Cloud 9 (2008), a fairly explicit and moving movie about senior sex, and returned to do so again with Stopped on Track, a film about dying.

Frank’s life seems to be pretty much on track when he gets diagnosed with a terminal brain tumour in his mid-40s and learns that he only has a few months left to live. We witness the challenging times ahead in his family home, and Dresen shows every step of this painful journey. Without a written script, and using only improvised dialogue, he creates an agonisingly authentic portrayal of Frank’s decline. But, despite its morbid topic, this is a film that celebrates life.

A Coffee in Berlin (2012)

Director: Jan-Ole Gerster

A Coffee in Berlin (2012)

Shot in black and white, Jan-Ole Gerster’s debut film, A Coffee in Berlin, deals with the desire to participate in life and the difficulty of finding one’s place. At its centre is late-twentysomething Niko, who dropped out of law school two years previously and takes each day as it comes. When his father cuts off his allowance, he can suddenly no longer afford to buy a cup of decent coffee. In episodic scenes, the film follows a day and a night of Niko’s aimless wandering through Berlin, as he has a series of chance encounters that have a lasting impact on his future.

Effortlessly charming, and with a jazz soundtrack, A Coffee in Berlin comments on an entire generation simply by watching this young man try to figure things out. This tragicomedy about what we would now call a millennial was a surprise success at the 2013 German Film Awards, winning six awards, including best film and best director.

Barbara (2012)

Director: Christian Petzold

Barbara (2012)

Christian Petzold, one of Germany’s most critically celebrated directors, is a master of dramatising human dilemmas and emotional betrayals. In the summer of 1980, Barbara (Nina Hoss, who stars in most of his films), a doctor, adjusts to her new life in the East German provinces, where she has been sent as punishment. In line with Petzold’s genuine interest in the margins of society and his characters’ state of uncertainty, the viewer is kept in the dark about what her crime might have been for a good chunk of the movie. Instead, we witness how Barbara distances herself from any kind of social interaction that goes beyond the professional. However, her new boss, André (Ronald Zehrfeld), intrigues her. But is she confusing intimidation with affection?

Petzold beautifully weaves a story about trust and mistrust under the constant surveillance of East Germany’s secret police, combining it with a love story – or actually two. He won best director at the Berlin Film Festival, and Barbara represented Germany in the 2012 foreign-language Oscar race. Petzold’s equally masterful follow-up, Phoenix (2014), is available to watch on BFI Player.

Victoria (2015)

Director: Sebastian Schipper

Victoria (2015)

Sebastian Schipper, actor-turned-director, pulled off a coup with this daring, utterly compelling thriller: he shot the entire movie in one single uninterrupted take. The lone camera follows Victoria (Laia Costa), a Spanish classical pianist, who is intrigued to find out what else Berlin has to offer, when she meets Sonne and his friends outside a club in the early hours. What starts as a flirtatious late-night adventure soon spirals out of control, and Schipper takes the viewer on an electrifying trip through a city that never sleeps.

Based on a minimal 12-page script, and made with entirely improvised dialogue, Schipper leaves the conventional behind and subverts the role of the director: once the camera rolled, the actors were fully in charge. You marvel that no editor was needed to create such a dense and captivating story. Nils Frahm’s beautiful soundtrack completes this exceptional film experience.

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